Elsie's Kith and Kin (by Martha Finley)

Way back in 2011, I downloaded and read ‘Elsie Dinsmore’ by Martha Finley, more out of curiosity than anything. The author died over 100 years ago, and most of her novels for girls were written in the late 1800s, so inevitably they’re old-fashioned, and (since she was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister) they are also overtly Christian and, to modern tastes, rather moralistic.

Idly flicking through my Kindle a few months ago I saw that I had many other ‘Elsie’ books and picked one at random. ‘Elsie’s Kith and Kin’ turns out to be number 12 in the series, which made it rather confusing; Elsie is now not just married with children, but a grandmother, and there are various in-laws and even step-children in the picture. There are a good many people who all seem to live in or around the same location, and I entirely lost track of who was whom.

I then abandoned the story for a few months and only recently decided to finish it. I don’t know why it’s somewhat compulsive reading, as the storylines are predictable and the characters exaggerated and in many cases annoying.

Elsie herself comes into this very little. The earlier part of the story is taken up with her son Edward and his wife Zoe who have a disagreement about a friend who stays with them, and a potential tragedy that eventually pulls them together. I thought that was fairly interesting, if rather long-winded.

The second part of the story features Elsie’s daughter Violet and her step-children Max, Lulu and Gracie. There’s clearly some back-story that I’ve missed, but they’re all now living in Ion, the family home, although the children’s father (Violet’s husband) Captain Raymond mostly works at sea. Lulu has a hot temper and has been frustrated in many ways, and is threatened with being sent away to boarding school. She’s trying to control her temper, then she kicks out in anger, and there’s another possible tragedy…

The various subplots have a lot of potential, but the writing style is not just old-fashioned but full of unlikely and long-winded conversations and descriptions. I can see that, for the era, the adults are in fact fairly liberal and loving; Lulu’s father in particular, while very angry with her at first, owns that he makes many mistakes, and is quick to forgive when she is repentant, though not after some quite harsh punishments.

The author was perhaps trying to show the importance of fathers being involved in their children’s lives (and listening to their wives, in the first part of the story) and, for the era, perhaps the nature of the story might have helped children with bad tempers to see the error of their ways. Or perhaps not. Human nature doesn’t change even if circumstances and situations do, and many of the people - particularly the children - are really too good to be true. Lulu is really the only interesting child in the book.

I also found it almost offensive that the servants, albeit treated well, are seen as inherently inferior to the house owners in an almost condescending way, even if they are highly skilled and intelligent. Perhaps that was realistic for the time and place (they are set in the United States) but it jarred, in a way that I don’t find in other writing of the era such as books by Jane Austen, for instance, or Louisa M Alcott.

I can’t imagine that any children or teens nowadays would be remotely interested in a book of this nature. But if anyone is curious, or would like to read them from a social history point of view, they are available freely as Google Books or at Project Gutenburg, as well as in paperback form at Amazon on both sides of the Atlantic.

I would not, personally, recommend this book however, and doubt if I will read any more in the series.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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